Getting Ready 22

This will be about Angie Ngoc Tran’s book, Ties that Bind: Cultural Identity, Class and Law in Vietnams’ Labor Resistance. Cornell Southeast Asia Publications 2013. This is the book I needed to read, although it is too dense for me to have been able to get through before now because I didn’t know enough to have places to hang what she’s telling me. She has interviews, library research, photographs, collections of documents from both Vietnam and in the US, etc. It’s clearly the work of many, many years, maybe a lifetime of trying to understand what happened. She begins the book in the 1920’s, looking at labor protests under the French, then moves to the RVN period (1954 – 75) after the Geneva Conference, and then to the period starting in 1986 when the Doi Moi policy began. In each period, she asks:

Who were these workers? How did they rely on cultural identities (native place, gender, ethnicity, and religion) to bond with each other? How did these ties engender collective action in times of need and desperation? What role did skill levels play in labor mobilization? With regard to class, were workers aware of belonging to a working class with shared interests, and if so, when did they become aware of this? What were their forms of protest, including forms of protest based on knowledge of an use of law? (page 63).

This is a book I should read more than once. In order to get a grasp of it, I am reading it with two concerns in mind, for starters.

One, I’m noting that she’s got some focus on the textile industry. That happens to be important to me because I worked for UNITE (before it merged into UNITE HERE and then split again) in Philadelphia, a city that had at one time been a major textile and garment industry center. This was in 1998-99. Even at that time, we were losing shops every week. What I was told was that in the 1970s the Joint Board (a collection of local unions) had 30,000 members. By the time I was working there, it was down to 1,200 and dropping. Elsewhere I have described the beautiful things that people made in those shops: alligator handbags, Sunday bonnets, men’s full-length cashmere winter coats, drum major’s top hats. Some of the people in those shops were third generation, sometimes working side by side, mothers and sons and daughters. To them, the union was the world of their life. But it was draining away – to Vietnam, and now I see how. In the 1960s’, working with the AFL-CIO and the CIA, the US gave a loan of $6 million AID money to Chinese-American and Taiwanese business owners to set up textile factory in Vietnam – this is just one example, a factory where there was a huge strike that led to a general strike in 1964. The US agency was called USOM (US Operations Mission). It worked with a right wing Vietnamese union, the leadership of which tried to get “militarized” – meaning armed? –  in order to be part of the fight against the communists who were coming from the North. The commnists came to work in factories as cadre and do organizing. Not only US money and “technical assistance” was given to get the textile industry going in Vietnam, but actual tools and equipment were sent over. (Problem: Vietnam had a huge long history of textile manufacture – why did they need US assistance? Probably to modernize. Also, it wasn’t the Vietnamese who needed the industry; it was the Chinese-American and Taiwanese business owners, and their investors, who saw the opportunity and took it.)

So that’s where our industry was going, along with a whole lot of money, and it turned into a war.

The other thing I am looking for is organizing tactics. These organizers were really courageous. There seem to have been about 5 different labor unions or labor confederations in Vietnam in the 1960s (this is when “the war” as we know it was heating up). They are identified as right-wing, anti-communist, left-leaning, communist, etc. The communists were coming from the north, getting jobs undercover in factories, and doing organizing. They would be thrown in jail when exposed, or would have to move on to another factory. They learned multiple languages to speak to different ethnic groups and across dialects. They studied, produced newspapers (changing the name of the newspaper but keeping the same initial letters of the name) and propaganda material, and had women’s and men’s sections. There were also Catholic socialists who would be described as left-leaning.

Some of Trans’ interviews with older cadre who were part of this sound like organizers here. One guy whom she interviewed says:

In Vimytex, as an electrician, I had the opportunity to roam freely around the factory to fix electrical problems, and interact with about 1800 workers…(page 94)

When we’re doing a labor ed class here, and we do the “Mapping your workplace” exercise in order to help people figure out who can communicate with other workers and which workers are going to be hard to reach, we always discover electricians or other skilled utility/maintenance workers who move around the workplace. Or they might be people doing photocopying or delivering mail or emptying wastebaskets, too. So that’s not all that different.

But in the next sentence, he says:

Tran Khai Nguyen (the direct leader of Luru Que) was also an electrician, who established the first communist cell in this factory. But he got caught and (was) tortured to death in Hoa Hoa military detention center (94).

So reading this book does not help me answer my question, “What are we supposed to be teaching? What do they need from us?”

Tran talks about a “class moment,” by which she means “the process that participants undergo when discovering class consciousness during protests” (86). She is still asking about the role of cultural identities in this process, distinguishing between cultural identity solidarity (Polyani – type) and class solidarity (Marxist). I too have tried to look closely at that moment, although I haven’t called it a class moment. I would argue that “discovering class consciousness” is actually learning, so I would call it a learning moment, not a class moment. I would say that what you learn is about class. Using Activity Theory (all this is in my book, in great detail), I would say that what she calls a “class moment” is that moment when the differences of class become sufficiently visible to the learner that they cannot avoid recognizing them, breaking away any false consciousness that they may be invested in. (Tran talks about “thick” and “thin” false consciousness on page 62, “thick” being when the worker sincerely adopts the ideology of the employer and believes that they and he are on the same side; “thin” being when the worker pretends to agree with the employer’s ideology.) I would say that a “class moment” happens when, speaking in Activity Theory terms, the two opposing activity systems become visible, and the “subject” – in the sense of actor, first person, “I” – can see what he or she (or they, since it’s collective) are up against. Sometimes, when the two systems become visible, they are all laid out there including the history, the communities from which they sprung, their laws, customs, resources and above all their purposes. And you can figure out what side you’re on. Other times, it’s just a sudden hint that makes everything clear, producing the moment when someone says, “Oh, I see. I get it.” Like when your boyfriend breaks up with you and you finally realize, “Oh, you really don’t love me, do you? Hmmm, guess I’d better get going.” A moment of clarity.

It’s like the first time you walk into someone’s house who is really rich – really, really rich, and you see that they apparently think it’s necessary to have whole rooms with nothing in them, or a six-car garage, or a “home theater” or a extra apartment for a live-in maid. You say, “Wow, I get it.”  This is what you think you actually need, wow.

Another moment when the whole thing was laid out for me, unfortunately, was when I marched in the Labor Day Parade in Iowa in about 1996. The parade was made up of union workers, all strutting their tools, uniforms, vehicles and flags. The electricians unfortunately had dressed up some of their members as rats, complete with pointy face masks with whiskers. Rats represent scabs, and they had the rats running along beside the float and the good union electricians in their uniforms stood on the floats and pretended to bash the rats with baseball bats. The idea is that the rats were stealing union jobs. Well, the parade took a long route from the State Capitol to the State Fairgrounds, through a poor and immigrant neighborhood. The street was lined with people who showed clearly the impact of joblessness or lack of decent healthcare on their faces and bodies. Lots of Asians and Latinos but also poor whites. I don’t remember many African-Americans, come to think of it. The houses were sagging and the yards were full of weeds. Some people had brought chairs, especially wheelchairs, out onto front porches. Here and there was someone holding a sign: “Lost my retirement,” or “No health insurance.” These were definitely people who lacked union jobs and would probably take anything in order to eat. Imagine how the rats looked from their point of view. The marchers in the parade even threw penny candy and kids scrambled in the street to pick it up.

Eventually the parade wound up at the State Fairgrounds and everyone got sodas and hot dogs. The crowd milling around the food tables testified to the preciousness of union-negotiated benefits: kids with braces and glasses and fancy sneakers, wives wearing tennis skirts that showed off long, strong legs, sandals that showcased pedicures. Shiny pickups in the parking lot. No one in a wheelchair. No one even looked old.

Nasty choreography, but a “class moment,” for sure, although this one was not in a protest. I guess that most of them time, you have to wait for a protest to see a class moment. But in reality, they’re choreographed all the time, sometimes by a parade organized by the Big Labor, sometimes by the guardhouse at the entrance to a gated community, sometimes by a red-lined neighborhood or a city limits sign. Go to a theater performance where the tickets cost $40 or $90 each and it’s all middle-aged white folks; that’s a class moment, too.

Now that we have our specific assignments, we know what we are supposed to look like we’re teaching. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading.